Monday, October 25, 2010

Petersburg discussion: Chapters 2, 3, 4

Those were strange, misty days: venomous October was passing with its freezing tread; frozen dust blew around the city in drab-brown vortices; and the golden whisper of foliage lay down submissively on the paths of the Summer Garden, and he rustling purple lay down submissively at people’s feet, to wind and chase at the feet of a passing pedestrian, and to murmur as it wove from leaves a red-and-yellow web of words; that sweet chirruping of blue tits that all August had bathed in waves of foliage had long since ceased to bathe in foliage: and the Summer Garden blue tit herself was now hopping forlornly in the black network of boughs, along the bronze railing and across the roof of Peter’s house.

Such were the days. As for the nights—did you go out on those nights, did you find your way to the distant wastelands in the suburbs, to hear the insistent, angry note of “u”? Uuuu-uuuu-uuuu: that was how it sounded in those spaces; that sound—was it a sound? If it was a sound, then it was certainly the sound of some other world; this sound reached an unusual strength and clarity: “uuuu-uuuu-uuu”: rang out quietly in the suburban fields of Moscow, Petersburg, Saratov; but the factory siren did not sound, there was no wind; and the dog held its peace.

Did you too hear this October song of 1905? That song was not heard before; and it will not be heard again: ever.

(page 102, Petersburg by Andrei Bely, Pushkin Press, 2009, translation by John Elsworth)

So what happens in these chapters? Nikolai Apollonovich takes a package from Alexandr Ivanovich, fulfilling a promise he made when Nikolai was depressed. The revolutionary Alexandr has an awkward meeting with Nikolai’s father. The many suitors of Sofia Petrovna hover with resulting impact on her silent, suffering husband (Sergei Sergeich). Anna Petrovna, the estranged wife of Apollon Apollonovich, retruns to the family home (while the family is out). A meeting of revolutionaries is visited by a detachment of Cossacks. Nikolai, wearing the red domino mask, makes an ass of himself first in front of Sofia and then at a party. The central conflict is revealed, first to Nikolai who finds out that the package he received from Alexandr contains bombs to kill his father. Next Apollon meets a detective who informs him about the plot on his life. Sergei, distraught at his wife’s disloyalty, unsuccessfully tries to hang himself. Chapter Four ends on several positive notes, leading the reader to wonder what direction events will travel in the second half: Sergei and Sofia appear to have reconciled, Apollon protects a woman on her walk home, Apollon’s wife is back in town, and the sun rises on Petersburg to displace the gloom. Positive turns? Or false hope?

Bely builds on the atmosphere of strangeness in this section, at times creating an otherworldly setting. In the previous post I struggled with a vocabulary to explain what Bely is doing, although it’s a pleasure simply to let it wash over me. He shows the unseen—what’s beyond the walls or mirrors—by combining concrete realities and symbolic appearances. The bleak atmosphere rarely stops. Plenty of descriptions describe the smoke and soot hanging over the city and the stranger (who was seen following Apollon Apollonovich in the first chapter) makes the impact explicit: “Smoke penetrates the grey matter of the brain… The hemispheres of the brain become contaminated: a general inertia spreads through the organism…”. (page 96, ellipses in original) There are plenty of descriptions that capture the atmosphere Bely paints, but I’ll try to limit myself to only few more in this post:

The stranger with the little black moustache looked out of the window at the expanse of the Neva; a putrid pale-grey mass was hanging there: the edge of the earth was putrid pale-grey mass was hanging there: the edge of the earth was there and the end of all infinities; there, through the greyness and the putrid mass venomous October was already whispering something, beating against the windows with tears and wind; and the tears of rain on the panes chased each other, to twist into streams and trace the hieroglyphs of words; in the chimneys the sweet chirruping of the wind could be heard, and a network of black chimneys, from far, far away, sent its smoke up into the sky. And the smoke tumbled in tails over the dark-coloured waters. (page 112)

Many characters are introduced in this section. Sofia Petrovna turns out to be the love over which Nikolai had contemplated suicide. She is a flighty bird who enjoys tormenting her husband, Sergei Sergeich, while hosting many would-be suitors. In describing Sofia’s house, the narrator makes the comment that there was no perspective to it, which conveniently applies to Sofia’s character as well. Alexandr Ivanovich, the stranger seen following Apollon in the first chapter, turns out to be a revolutionary agent taking advantage of Nikolai’s weakness. Anna Petrovna, Apollon’s wife who ran off with another man over two years ago, turns up at the family house.

While there are other characters of varying importance I wanted to look at two characters who present alternative sides. Nikolai Apollonovich goes out in his cape and red domino, becoming a personality that, while achieving mythic status in newspaper stories, also seems to allow him an outlet for an alter ego. Meanwhile, Sofia Petrovna makes herself up into a character she calls Madame Pompadour, behaving in ways that Sofia doesn’t fully realize until too late.

Comparisons between characters, especially similarities, are fun for me to note. Nikolai and Apollon share much in common even though the generational differences receive substantial emphasis. One commonality between father and son, minor but it adds a nice touch, has both men tripping around the house (on the carpet, on the corners of furniture, etc.). For Nikolai, unfortunately, this is foreshadowing for his sprawling embarrassment in the streets of Petersburg in front of Sofia. Nikolai also displays empathy for his father, at least regarding how he would view himself if he were the father. Although at this point it seems that the sins of the son will be visited upon the father. The stranger, Alexandr Ivanovich, has a similar background as Apollon since both had been stationed in the countryside early in their career with similar outlooks at being away from the city. Alexandr and Apollon also have similar reactions to their isolation, although the reasons for their loneliness are very different—Alexandr’s due to his revolutionary role, Apollon because of his wife’s elopement.

The approaching winter mirrors the atmosphere of expectation in Petersburg, expectations without any sense of resolution.

Those were strange, misty days; an icy hurricane was making its approach in tattered clouds, leaden and blue; but everyone believed in spring: the newspapers wrote about spring, officials of the fourth class discussed spring; a minister who was popular at the time pointed to spring; and the effusions of a Petersburg girl-student carried the scent of nothing less than violets in early May. (page 99)

Everyone looks forward to spring but winter hasn’t begun, its difficult weather required before any regeneration can occur. In addition, the weather reflects the political atmosphere. There is plenty of talk of revolution and strikes, the stranger identifying the appeal of such talk as part of “a universal hankering for death, and I revel in it, with delight, with bliss, with horror.” (page 121) Newspaper stories, real (the defeat in “blood-soaked Manchuria”) and made-up (exploits of the figure in the red domino), add to the tension and feeling that strange events are happening all around. There are many more comparisons and contrasts in the atmosphere that Bely develops: city vs. country, order vs. chaos, younger vs. older, literature vs. reality, and upper vs. lower class to name only a few. The friction caused by these conflicts hints at a blaze about to ignite.

As usual, my discussion covers only a small portion of what is happening in this remarkable book. There are several references to Pushkin (“The Bronze Horseman” and “The Queen of Spades” figure prominently), many symbols (Bely’s use of colors is interesting, as is other works of art), and fun with narration techniques (the intrusions provide plenty of levity). There is an undercurrent that the present is a chimera, something not concrete or real, while reality or substance lies in the past or the future. So far it has been a lot of fun to read…I’m hurrying to post this so I can get back to the last half of the book and see what and how it all unfolds.

There are many more sections I had marked to quote, but I’ll pick one that shows the playfulness of Bely in looking at the party’s host in Chapter Four:

Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov had danced his life away; now Nikolai Petrovich was dancing this life to its end; dancing it lightly, inoffensively, and vulgarly; not a single cloud darkened his soul; his soul was pure and innocent, just like that sunburnt pate or that smoothly shaven chin protruding between his side-whiskers, as though it were the moon peeping out between clouds.

Everything had danced out as he wished.

He had started dancing as a small boy: he danced better than anyone; and as an accomplished dancer he had been invited to people’s houses; by the end of his gymnasium days he had dance himself many an acquaintance; from this immense circle of acquaintances by the time he graduated from the Law Faculty a circle of influential patrons had dance out of its own accord; and Nikolai Petrovich Tsukatov set about dancing attendance on the civil service. By that time he had danced away his estate; having danced it away, he took, with simple-hearted frivolity, to attending balls; and from such balls he brought home with remarkable ease his life’s companion Liubov AleAlekseevna; quite by chance this companion turned out to have an enormous dowry; and from that day on Nikolai Petrovich danced at home; children were danced into existence; the children’s upbringing came out dancing, all was danced with lightness, simplicity and joy.

Now he was dancing to the end of himself. (pages 203-204)

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